I am sure that, before I answer the hon. Gentleman's question, the whole House will want to express its sympathy to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) on her recent bereavement.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had a number of meetings with right hon. and hon. Members from Oxfordshire, including the hon. Gentleman, local general practitioners and other interested groups to discuss Oxfordshire health authority's proposals. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, my right hon. Friend is currently considering those proposals in detail.
I thank the Minister for that reply. He will know that it has been more than a year since consideration of the future of community hospitals in my constituency began. There is huge uncertainty, which means that it is becoming impossible to recruit nurses to community hospitals, because they do not know whether they will have a job in six months' time. Does he also know that the Oxford Radcliffe said that currently 16 of its 26 patient assessment areas are blocked because it cannot get people out into community hospital beds—and that is with the three community hospitals still open? It has also said that losing 52 beds in my constituency will have a catastrophic effect on health, not only in west Oxfordshire, but in Oxfordshire as a whole.
Does the Minister accept that cuts for social services this year, under which Oxfordshire will lose £10.5 million, will create an impossible situation for those who require health care and social services? An urgent decision by Ministers on keeping open Burford, Witney and Chipping Norton community hospitals is absolutely essential.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is urgently considering the proposals. As I said, we intend to discuss them and the available options in detail with all the interested parties. However, we are clear that any changes in Oxfordshire must lead to a modern and dependable health service for local people, and our priority is to ensure that. We recognise the important role that community hospitals play in delivering locally based patient care, but it is the responsibility of individual health authorities to determine the most appropriate balance of health services for their population and to ensure that those services are provided in the most clinically effective and resource efficient manner.
Does the Minister accept that the proposal to close community hospitals in Oxfordshire, which also affects Abingdon community hospital, was made at a time when the Government were sticking to Conservative spending plans, before the comprehensive spending review settlement, and before the savage cuts to social services that have been forced on Oxfordshire county council by a combination of the settlement and the crazy capping system? Will he give an undertaking that some of the money in the comprehensive spending review will be available to give Oxfordshire people what they want—good quality local care, at a level that is affordable to the health service, in their local community hospitals?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that there is a limit on what I can say today because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is currently reviewing all the proposals. My right hon. Friend is doing that in an inclusive and open fashion, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges and supports that.
On the issue of resources for Oxfordshire county council and its social services budget, I do not recognise the figures quoted by the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward). In 1998–99, total social services expenditure for Oxfordshire was £76.8 million; next year, it will be £78.2 million.
Does the Minister agree that the role of community hospitals is vital in reducing waiting lists in a legitimate way that benefits patients? The record of community hospitals in Oxfordshire and elsewhere is rather better than the hon. Gentleman's record of fiddling the figures. Why will he not admit that the total number of patients now waiting to get on the waiting list has increased by more than 220,000, and that, therefore, today's real waiting list figure is half a million more than he boasts?
None of that has anything to do with the question or the issue of hospitals in Oxfordshire. I have already tried to make clear the importance we attach to the role of community hospitals. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to check Hansard tomorrow.